National Geographic : 2005 Jul
muted acquiescence to Moscow. Yet in the final years of the Soviet Union, the Chechens were among the first to test their bonds. As indepen dence movements sprang up from the Baltics to the Russian Far East, cries for freedom in Chech nya ignited a rebellion. On the final day of 1994 Yeltsin responded to Dudayev's declaration of an independent Chechnya by launching what is now referred to as the first Chechen war. It would be a long, dismal campaign that pitted blundering Russian generals and teen age conscripts against a few thousand resolute Chechen guerrillas. For Moscow, the war soon devolved into a costly and deeply unpopular quagmire. For the Chechens, however, it was a war of infinite passion and pride. "Those who 86 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JULY 2005 fought in the first war were driven by one goal," says Timur Aliev, a Chechen journalist. "The rebels pursued a dream inherited from our ancestors: freedom." It was a time of ascendant heroes, men who rose from obscurity to find fame in the blood shed. Men like Shamil Basayev, a Chechen com mander named in honor of the Caucasus's most fabled warrior, Imam Shamil, leader of the mountaineers' 19th-century campaigns against the tsars. In 1859 Shamil was forced to surrender to the Russians, but his holy war would live on. Under Yeltsin, the first war ended neither in victory nor defeat. Rather, in August 1996, after the Chechen rebels swarmed back and recap tured Groznyy, both sides agreed to a cease-fire.